March/April 2003 // Commentary
A New Challenge for Education:
Addressing the Needs of Lifelong Learners
by Phillip G. Clark and Laurence Shatkin
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Phillip G. Clark and Laurence Shatkin "A New Challenge for Education:
Addressing the Needs of Lifelong Learners" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players
...And one man in his time plays many parts.

Shakespeare wrote these words in an era when people played a predictable sequence of parts, from youth to old age. He captured a phenomenon that is also true today, but with the difference that now we play many roles simultaneously. The emerging knowledge-based economy forces all of us to become lifelong learners, career planners, and workers to enhance, or in many cases just to maintain, our role in the world. As a result, preparation for careers and the exploration of careers is no longer exclusively the task of people new to the work world. As active learners of all ages undertake these tasks, they will expect colleges and other educational organizations to offer new support services—and traditional thinking about career development will have to give way to the new concept of competency asset management.

The Trend Toward Competencies

Even as educational institutions add lifelong learners to their traditional market of young people, they need to move away from the traditional focus on degrees as the product being sold. At least since 1998, articles have appeared in the literature on the need for continuing and mid-career education based on competencies (Green, 1998). In an article entitled "The Future of Colleges: 9 Inevitable Changes," Arthur Levine (2000) proposed that degrees will wither in importance as competencies become more important in determining the value of education. Lee, Bhattacharya, Nelson, and Kihn (2002) have similarly argued that e-learning will succeed only after learning providers abandon the traditional emphasis on degrees and focus instead on "bite-size chunks" of learning. As the higher education community, forced by economic realities, begins to focus more and more on the needs of postgraduate lifelong learners, education based on competencies, or outcomes, will gain in importance. It follows that people's initial learning will focus more on basic competencies in English, math, and critical thinking—on learning how to learn over a lifetime—rather than on more narrow vocational skills and knowledge. After that, learning will be driven by individual capabilities, current competencies, desired competencies, and the availability of learning resources.

Prior to the availability of online learning and educational services, learners' needs were met by postgraduate degree programs, continuing education programs, or training firms dedicated to specific career markets. Learners were grouped into classes and forced to participate in fixed-length programs with predetermined start dates, which allowed institutions to maximize the use of the instructor's time. Institutional-centric (rather than learner-centric) teaching was the norm.

Technology has expanded the availability and flexibility of learning opportunities. Though they are not widely available yet, learning objects, along with meta-data standards that support the identification of need-specific knowledge, will provide learners with content that meets specific and narrowly defined purposes. Bratina, Hayes, and Blumsack (2002) recently published an excellent discussion on the use of learning objects, citing several examples of learning object repositories such as the MIT OpenCourseWare project and the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT). Learning management and course management systems such as those offered by eCollege and WebCT, which can provide learning objects that meet individual needs, are becoming more widely available.

As learners look for help from educational providers, whether online or on campus, they should not upgrade their competencies blindly. In a knowledge-based economy, people can expect to learn continuously and to make new career decisions several times over the course of a working lifespan. As the demands of the workplace change relentlessly, workers need to inventory their competencies (knowledge and skills) on a regular basis—and if they find their competencies lacking, they will need to upgrade them to be sure that they remain employable.

Taken together, these activities are what we refer to as competency asset management (CAM). To be done systematically, with a basis in good information, such activities require a new kind of tool: an assessment-based resource that can help both employers and workers manage their competencies as assets (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 2002). Clearly, there is an implicit role for our educational institutions to provide not just competency-based educational and training services, but also support services to help individuals manage their competencies.

The Process of Competency Asset Management

The role of educational institutions becomes clearer when the process of managing competencies is viewed as a series of steps. Competency asset management would lead workers through a four-stage process:

  • a pre-assessment that inventories their current competencies, makes explicit their needs and preferences for personal fulfillment, takes stock of their resources, and establishes their preferred modes of learning;

  • a goal-setting exercise that helps them identify ways to satisfy their needs and preferences through education and career development, and that helps them forecast the competencies they will need to reach their goals;

  • a planning exercise that results in a strategy (with contingencies) to bridge the gap between their current competency levels and the requirements of their goals; and

  • a post-assessment that measures the outcomes of education and career development, determines which goals remain unmet, and provides opportunities for revising goals and strategies.

Ultimately this process would not be linear, but cyclical: The results of the post-assessment would help feed into the pre-assessment of the next cycle, and people would cycle through the process repeatedly over the course of their working lives.

The Role of Educational Institutions in CAM

Educational institutions clearly can contribute to step one. Assessment has always been an important part of education, and as educational institutions become more accustomed to thinking in terms of competencies, they will become better at helping adults assess their current competencies. Some exciting work has already been done at institutions such as Thomas Edison State College and Western Governors University, which use portfolios and assessments to grant adults academic credit for informal (often workplace-based) learning.

Educational institutions will have to be careful to keep step two (goal setting) distinct from step three (planning). Adult learners will need to sort out what they want to achieve in a generalized way before they identify how and where to achieve it. In other words, an educational institution will have to help adults crystallize their learning needs before it starts marketing learning services to them. The institution will have to accept the likelihood that some proportion of adults will, after identifying their learning needs, plan to do their learning elsewhere. But if all institutions are engaged in helping adults with this process, all will benefit.

The third step, planning, is closest to the educational institution's traditional marketing function: showing adults that they can realize their goals through the institution's pedagogical offerings. However, because the learner's strategy will be competency-based, the institution will have to go beyond its historic marketing focus on degrees. Instead, the institution will have to market the additional benefits of how its specific courses (or "bite-size" chunks of education) can address specific competency needs. In some cases, the institution may recommend clusters of courses that address the core competencies of certain occupations, but the rigidity of the traditional course sequence for the college major will need to give way to more flexible options. Likewise, the traditional college bulletin, with opaque course descriptions, will need to be replaced by new ways of communicating the competency goals of course offerings.

The fourth step, post-assessment, is like the first step in that educational institutions have always assessed learning outcomes. But once again, the focus will need to shift to competencies, and these competencies will need to be tied closely to the learner's workplace needs rather than to the prerequisites of the next course in a degree-program sequence.

Much pioneering work has already been done. Projects such as the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) Guide to Developing Online Student Services (which explains how to provide expanded services to learners in an online environment) have demonstrated that various student services, including career advising, can be provided to learners when and where needed. Another promising endeavor is The Possibility Network, currently under development at Indiana Wesleyan University under a grant from the Lilly Endowment. It includes a resource called the Personal Learning Assistant that enables adults in search of a particular educational or training program to learn about—and sign up for—courses offered by many different providers: universities, technical schools, in-house training programs that accept outsiders, apprenticeship programs, and the like. The Personal Learning Assistant is designed specifically to address the third step of CAM—planning. It also contains simple aids to goal-setting, and there are plans to incorporate a portfolio development tool to address pre-assessment.

Development of CAM Resources

A process as complicated as CAM demands a sophisticated tool to help adult learners with the various steps—to bring together assessment and information, to guide step-by-step processes of goal-setting and planning, and to keep a record of goals and achievements. At present, it is not at all clear what organization has the vision and the resources to create a comprehensive CAM resource, although several possible developers can be imagined: a government agency, such as the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor; a nonprofit organization with an educational mission, such as Educational Testing Service; a consortium of educational institutions, especially ones directed at adults and oriented toward competency-based credentials; a major vendor of human resources management solutions; or even a dot-com with an interest in career development, such as Probably a partnership among several such organizations would be the best way to assemble the commitment, expertise, and resources necessary for such an effort. The emergence of Web services technologies enhances the possibility of bringing divergent participants together; these technologies make the ad-hoc integration of data and computer applications invisible to users so that they can enjoy a more user-specific experience. In this case, Web services might integrate learning objects from one source with assessment tools from another, with the experience being recorded in a third application—all in one easy-to-use interface. (For more on what Web services are and how they might be used, see Lorenzo [2002].)

The various components of a CAM resource (and the project participants who develop them) will not work well together unless someone develops a common language of competencies so that the resources can talk to one another. Workplace competencies and learning goals must be describable in the same terms.

At present, it is hard enough to get either the world of work or the world of education to adopt its own internally accepted taxonomy of competencies. The world of work has made a good step in that direction with the recent release of a database called Labor Exchange Skills. Created for the Employment and Training Administration, it describes every occupation in the O*NET-SOC taxonomy in terms of a set of statements that are specific enough to resemble work tasks, yet generic enough to resemble broader skill sets. The database can help people identify skills they have used in one occupation that may be transportable to another; thus the taxonomy can be used by workers to enhance a r?ɬ©sum?ɬ© or portfolio, by employers to list requirements for job openings, or by system developers as a computerized resource for suggesting career transitions.

The obvious next step is for learning providers to describe their course and program offerings in terms of the Labor Exchange Skills so that workers can make decisions and plans about education based on competency goals. Of course, it is possible that the educational community will find this system unsuitable for describing learning goals—perhaps because the Labor Exchange Skills are not sufficiently detailed, perhaps because they are excessively work-oriented, or perhaps for some other good reason.

Nevertheless, the issue now is whether the education community will accept the challenge of providing this kind support to help lifelong learners decide what they need to learn. Part of that challenge is to apply some taxonomy of competencies related to learning goals, a taxonomy that can at least be cross-referenced with the Labor Exchange Skills or some other workplace-relevant classification of competencies. In a knowledge-based economy, the familiar academic major-to-career linkage no longer offers value to the growing number of lifelong learners. While new technologies offer greater potential for meeting the demand of these learners, higher education institutions will need to make greater efforts toward realizing this potential.


Bartlett, C. A., & Ghoshal, S. (2002). Building competitive advantage through people. Sloan Management Review, 43(2), 34-41.

Bratina, T., Hayes, D., & Blumsack, S. (2002, November/December). Preparing teachers to use learning objects. The Technology Source. Retrieved January 9, 2003, from

Green, J. C. (1998). A case for continuing and mid-career education based on competencies. Business Forum, 23(1-2), 40-42.

Lee, R. V., Bhattacharya, S., Nelson, T., & Kihn, M. (2002). Re-learning e-learning. New York: Booz Allen Hamilton. Retrieved December 10, 2002, from

Levine, A. E. (2000, October 27). The future of colleges: 9 inevitable changes. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B10. Retrieved December 10, 2002, from

Lorenzo, G. (2002). Web services enabling technology for application integration and assembly. Retrieved January 8, 2003, from

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